I oh-so wish that I could truthfully say that I disagree with what Bob Higgs says in this recent Facebook post. But as with nearly all else that Bob has said over the past 50-plus years, I agree in full:
I don’t believe that the rulers have any intention of allowing their subjects to return to the status quo ante regardless of what happens to COVID-19, vaccines, or treatments. The events of the past year have been a godsend for them, and they will fight tooth and nail to resist surrendering the powers they have seized and exercised. Moreover, many members of the public will support their quest to retain these powers; the people have already demonstrated that their fears can be easily aroused and heightened, whereas their concerns about liberty, if they had any to begin with, will be cast aside in a panicked stampede to comply with the government’s fear-mongering orders.
Yes, some people will resist, but the foregoing is my best guess of how things will develop overall. People who cherish a free society will be screwed once again, thanks to the state’s power-seeking exploitation of the “emergency” rationale.
By the end of the Cold War, most economists—even some socialists—were acknowledging that Mises and Hayek had won the debate: The Soviet planners had failed because they had embarked on a task that could not succeed.
But in the COVID-19 era, a lot of policy makers have let this lesson slip their minds. While few have advocated full-blown state socialism, many have forgotten the more general truth that officials don’t have enough information to make detailed plans about people’s lives.
Take Gavin Newsom, the first governor to impose a statewide lockdown. The California Democrat listed 16 infrastructure sectors deemed so essential that they would not have to lock down. Restaurants, hairdressers, gymnasiums, and schools, not being among them, were compelled to close. So were large swaths of the retail economy. But Newsom did not base these regulations on a sophisticated understanding of what is essential and what is not. He couldn’t. No one has that understanding, for the reasons Hayek laid out long ago. The list of essential industries came from an old script; it was not highly correlated with the relative value of various industries and was not closely based on risks of spread.
What was missing from the discussion is something known only in the minds of the humans involved: the value of what was lost. Measuring the loss of gross domestic product (GDP) doesn’t quite do it, because the private sector component of GDP is valued at market prices but the value consumers put on goods and services typically exceeds the sticker price. (Economists refer to the value minus the price as consumer surplus.) Gatherings of more than a few people at funerals, for example, were prohibited; many mourners surely valued the gathering they had to miss at more than the ceremony’s price.
Andrew Gelman asks if it’s “really true that the U.S. death rate in 2020 was the highest above normal since the early 1900s—even surpassing the calamity of the 1918 flu pandemic.” His answer: No. Here’s a telling graph from Gelman’s post (from which, do notice, that to find a time in American history when the annual death rate was last as high as it was in 2020 we must go waaaaay back in time – about 15 or so years!):
Several friends have assured me that life will indeed largely return to normal after we conquer Covid. I hope that they’re correct, but reports such as this one only further fuel my fear that this derangement will last a long, long time.
Matthew Crawford reveals how “The pandemic has revealed a darkly authoritarian side to expertise.” (Arnold Kling, I think, will especially like this essay given its use of work by Martin Gurri.) Two slices:
The phrase “follow the science” has a false ring to it. That is because science doesn’t lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, by quantifying the risks and specifying the tradeoffs. But it can’t make the necessary choices for us. By pretending otherwise, decision-makers can avoid taking responsibility for the choices they make on our behalf.
Increasingly, science is pressed into duty as authority. It is invoked to legitimise the transfer of sovereignty from democratic to technocratic bodies, and as a device for insulating such moves from the realm of political contest.
Over the past year, a fearful public has acquiesced to an extraordinary extension of expert jurisdiction over every domain of life. A pattern of “government by emergency” has become prominent, in which resistance to such incursions are characterised as “anti-science”.
But the question of political legitimacy hanging over rule by experts is not likely to go away. If anything, it will be more fiercely fought in coming years as leaders of governing bodies invoke a climate emergency that is said to require a wholesale transformation of society. We need to know how we arrived here.
Covid is indeed a very serious illness, with an infection fatality rate about ten times higher than that of the flu: roughly one percent of all those who are infected die. Also, however, unlike the flu this mortality rate is so skewed by age and other risk factors, varying by more than a thousand-fold from the very young to the very old, that the aggregate figure of one percent can be misleading. As of November 2020, the average age of those killed by Covid in Britain was 82.4 years old.
In July of 2020, 29 % of British citizens believed that “6-10 percent or higher” of the population had already been killed by Covid. About 50% of those polled had a more realistic estimate of 1%. The actual figure was about one tenth of one percent. So the public’s perception of the risk of dying of Covid was inflated by one to two orders of magnitude. This is highly significant.
Disasters don’t just happen, argues Ferguson in this superb, first-out-of-the-gate historical inquiry into the politics of pandemics: they are often caused, always experienced, so the way they play out tells us much about the human beings involved. Maybe the coronavirus was triggered by bats, but it was spread by us and bungled by us, and our attempts to interpret it expose our contemporary obsessions. The death toll of the past year has been pinned on populists such as Donald Trump or Boris Johnson; Ferguson, on the other hand, regards Trump’s poor leadership as symptomatic, not a catalyst. “What happened was in large measure a disastrous failure of the public health bureaucracy”, reflecting a long-term decline in the quality of American governance. Since the middle of the last century, the state has been trying to do more things, with less common sense.
As Phil Magness would say, a straw man is now stomping through Oregon. And this straw man is set yet again to stomp also through Perth, despite Australia having early on – so decisively and wisely, we are told – used harsh measures to rid itself of the Covid Monster.
Back to Bob Higgs: Those of you who are confident that Higgs’s ratchet effect will not play out as a result of the vast new and draconian powers exercised by the Covidocracy over the past 15 months might wish to read this piece by Dan Hannan about the once-free country of Britain. A slice:
It is true that shops and schools are at last open again. But universities are still not teaching face-to-face, offices remain empty and it is illegal to invite your friends to dinner. Frankly, at the rate we are going, I wonder how much impact the formal lifting of the remaining prohibitions will have. I have a nasty suspicion that, as when the first lockdown ended last July, many people will remain anxious, even mildly agoraphobic.
I hope to God that I’m wrong, but I can’t help noticing that many of my inoculated neighbours are being more cautious now than they were a year ago when they had had no vaccine.
Perhaps it is the unrelenting pessimism of the news cycle. We are constantly hearing about the tragedy in India, but when did you last see a report about, say, Florida, which lifted its restrictions last year and have suffered no ill effect? Or perhaps people have simply settled into new, timid routines. Few laws are as powerful as force of habit. If you spend 14 months telling people that it is dangerous to leave their homes, there is bound to be some lasting psychological effect.
The worst of it is that we seem to have accepted the reversal of the burden of proof. Our criminal justice system requires a high degree of evidence before incarceration. But we have switched things around so that we now demand proof before accepting normality. Our right to buy and sell, to congregate, to travel – these things are our birthright, not a set of privileges to be earned through good behaviour as though we were prisoners applying for parole. When did we stop caring?